A place for new ideas to settle.

27 January 2015

Passive objection

This post is a tangential follow-up to: Rhetorical imperialism

I will soon be working on a non-Marxist fix-up of an article from the Harvard Political Review called "On Privilege: A Leftist Critique of the Left":
 Let me be clear that my criticism of discussions of privilege is not that they are too radical. My quarrel, to the contrary, is that they are not radical enough. The cultural Marxism of the mid-20th century gifted the left with a powerful tool by which to understand how oppressive social structures are perpetuated through discourse—the critique of ideology. Ideology critique acknowledges that the status quo is enforced not only through a single, centralized node of authority, but through dispersed and diverse forms of discourse from all points of origin on the social spectrum. It is a peculiar feature of oppression that it is often enforced by those who are, in fact, oppressed. Ideology critique uses the term ideology to denote modes of thought that justify the dominant social order that privileges certain groups while disadvantaging others; and, more specifically, it deploys the term false consciousness to refer to the thought process by which marginalized groups justify their own oppression via ideology. The task of ideology critique is not to trace discourse back to its author and to critique its content on that basis, but to understand how oppression is perpetuated from multiple nodes, even unlikely ones. The marginalized are brought under as much critical scrutiny as the members of the privileged classes. The immediate origin of discourse is bracketed for a deeper understanding of how the arguments of a given interlocutor may be manifestations of an internalized mode of thinking that justifies the predominant power structure, whether advertently or inadvertently—in other words, how certain arguments further the interests of those in power at the expense of the marginalized, without explicitly declaring it.
If that seems dense to you, trust me: it's good, but burdened by much jargon, and so its usefulness is diminished. With any luck that can be fixed. Meanwhile, from another corner of the left-liberal territory comes a piece from Jonathan Chait, criticizing what he calls a resurgent culture of political correctness:
Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing. This has led to elaborate norms and terminology within certain communities on the left. For instance, “mansplaining,” a concept popularized in 2008 by Rebecca Solnit, who described the tendency of men to patronizingly hold forth to women on subjects the woman knows better — in Solnit’s case, the man in question mansplained her own book to her. The fast popularization of the term speaks to how exasperating the phenomenon can be, and mansplaining has, at times, proved useful in identifying discrimination embedded in everyday rudeness. But it has now grown into an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry once disdainfully called White House press secretary Jay Carney’s defense of the relative pay of men and women in the administration “man­splaining,” even though the question he responded to was posed by a male.) Mansplaining has since given rise to “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining.” The phrase “solidarity is for white women,” used in a popular hashtag, broadly signifies any criticism of white feminists by nonwhite ones.
Fair enough, and it's certainly depressing that so much energy has been wasted excommunicating would-be allies. Which is what makes the progressive-lefty response to Chait both predictable and sad.


My case study for this will be Amanda Marcotte, writing for Talking Points Memo. It might seem a bit, well, sexist to call Marcotte's rhetorical behavior "shrewish," but there are parallels—she seemingly needs to publish her body weight in clicktivist rage-bait every week or else die, for example. But her criticism of Chait's article is rather breath-taking in its duplicity, which shrews as a species are not known for:
While the article purports to be a lambast of “the culture of taking offense” and censorious attitudes, it quickly becomes clear that the only speech Chait is interested in protecting is conservative or contrarian. When it comes to people saying uncomfortable or provocative things from the left, Chait comes across as just as censorious and silencing as any of the leftist prigs he attempts to criticize.

To be clear, Chait has plenty of examples of what has become a genuinely serious problem of liberals who react to uncomfortable ideas by turning to censorship: Harassment campaigns against conservatives, canceling plays or art shows because of political incorrectness, tearing down anti-choice posters.

But outside of those few examples, most of Chait’s article is not a defense of rowdy public discourse at all, but the opposite: Most of the piece is little more than demands that liberals silence certain forms of discourse that make Chait uncomfortable. For a piece that mocks the use of “trigger warnings” to alert people about disturbing content, it sure seems Chait has no problem trying to silence anyone who says something that might hurt his feelings.
Mark the highlighted bits well, then consider Marcotte's own reaction to Scott Aaronson's "Comment 151":
Oof. Laurie Penny has an excellent column up right now refuting one of the more irritating aspects of “Nice Guy®”anti-feminism, which is the whole “how can men be oppressed when I don’t get to have sex with all the hot women that I want without having to work for it?” whine, one that, amongst other things, starts on the assumption that women do not suffer things like social anxiety or rejection. It’s a response to self-pitying comment from MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s blog comment section, a response he wrote to a woman who dared suggest that nerd men can sometimes be, you know, sexist. Penny is incredibly gracious to Aaronson in her response, so much so that I thought that his lengthy diatribe must be nuanced and humane on some level. Much to my surprise, however, it was just a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men. So, unlike Penny, I feel no need to be gracious about it. On the contrary, I think it’s time for a good, old-fashioned blog fisking.
Sure, neither this introductory paragraph, nor the subsequent "translations" (that is, uncharitable readings) are censorship per se, but Chait wasn't really talking about censorship per se either. To use more Latin phrasing, he was observing a de facto climate censorship where people are afraid to speak even a little bit out of line, for fear of overwhelming retaliation.

And let's be clear. This isn't like, say, creationism or flat-earth theory where coming out as a creationist or flat earther will (at least ideally) get one buried under a mountain of counter-arguments. The key word here is arguments.

If you come out as, well, insufficiently politically correct (in the very most Soviet sense of the phrase), you will not be counter-argued but rather shamed. That's because you have implicitly or explicitly revealed your identity as containing a wrong ideology. Unlike science-wrongs, which are at least partially grounded in amoral empiricism, identity-wrongs are highly charged. They carry a high moral and affective load.

Marcotte seems to have made a career off of willful un-charity and misreading of her ideological opponents. (Some of these opponents deserve vigorous opposition, I will freely admit!) Through careful equivocation she coaxes their words into the most ideologically objectionable form. This allows for easy transmission among her co-ideologues. For example, there's this masterful reduction by P.Z. Meyers, on Scott Aaronson:
You may recall that sad comment by Scott Aaronson on his blog, Shtetl-Optimized, in which he deplored the way no respect is given to men’s biological imperative to have sex with all the women.
Funny; I didn't get any of that from Aaronson's post, and (as I said before) it's not like I really have much shared personal experience of that kind, so I don't feel biased...


But I don't want to waste any more time on Marcotte (or the Aaronson shy-nerd thing). Instead I want to waste my time on explore the rhetorical phenomenon that Chait seems to be highlighting in his article.
The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents [...] Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to.

The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones. “The liberal view,” wrote MacKinnon 30 years ago, “is that abstract categories — like speech or equality — define systems. Every time you strengthen free speech in one place, you strengthen it everywhere. Strengthening the free speech of the Klan strengthens the free speech of Blacks.” She deemed this nonsensical: “It equates substantive powerlessness with substantive power and calls treating these the same, ‘equality.’ ”
I realize now, after writing a post about what I termed rhetorical imperialism—staking out a personal dominion in concept-space, so that everyone now has to talk about that stuff only on your terms—that rhetorical imperialism is more of a strategy than a singular action. So let's talk tactics now. The far left and far-left-ish, influenced by Marxism, take identity as a valid reason to reject arguments. This leads to a tactic that I'm going to call passive objection.

You may have been chided by an English teacher sometime in the distant past over your use of the passive voice: discounting the agent of an action, and highlighting the object of the action. Perhaps not coincidentally, this kind of argument runs rampant in politics.
ACTIVE VOICE: We made a mistake.
PASSIVE VOICE: Mistakes were made.
One can spot a passive-voice sentence by its use of auxiliary verbs, particularly is, was, were, are, and so on. So it goes with passive objection, where indirect reasons take precedence over direct ones. At least implicitly, it's who the speaker is, was, were, are (see the connection?) that determines the validity of the argument.

Now, passive voice in grammar isn't always bad, no matter what your English teacher may have insisted. Similarly, I'm not saying that every objection of the form "Wrong, because the speaker is X" is an underhanded tactic of rhetorical imperialism. The key is to ask: can this be rephrased into a more active sentence (respectively, objection) and will that new sentence (objection) still make sense?

That is, can you turn the passive objection into an active one based on specific examples of behavior or real-world consequences? For an example of what not to do, consider climate-change deniers. They dismiss reports on the trends and potential effects of global climate change with something like "oh, those scientists are just in it for the grant money and/or shills for one world government!" Similarly, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists will reject your pro-vaccine arguments as "shilling for Big Pharma."

Note that "I'm just telling you this because somebody paid me to tell you" does not actually address the argument. Even paying off literally everyone who espouses a certain claim doesn't affect the truth-value of the claim.

Consider objections to claims about religion, of the form "I was once X, but now I'm Y. Therefore X is wrong!" One person changing their beliefs does not perceptibly count against the formerly held belief.

And now consider objections to claims about political discourse: "Ugh, look at this Nice Guy" or "oh boy, more white tears" or, slightly more eloquent, "You aren't [special category], you don't get to talk, sit down and shut up" (maybe with extra fucks inserted). None of these address the argument, merely the phenomenon of the argument.


Passive objection does not describe all identity-based rejection. For example, even if a policy change sounds reasonable on its face, I would probably still try to minimize the contribution of, say, neo-Nazi voices to that discourse. And that's specifically because the Nazi's advocacy of, say, environmentalism was supported by really bad reasons—that's putting it lightly. And if the environmental movement wholeheartedly embraced Nazis for that cause, well, it could end up in some way legitimizing those bad Nazism-specific reasons for environmentalism. Humans are weird like that.

So I think it's reasonable to want to prune one's pet movements a bit, on ideological grounds. But on ideological grounds—because beliefs inform our actions—and not on identity grounds. Social categories are largely imposed, the labels mean very little in themselves. But they can be weaponized, and often turned against their owners.

That, at least, is (part of) the essence of that leftist critique of the left which I linked to at the beginning of this post. Consider this a taste of things to come.